Some B-Schools Don’t Want “Customers”

In the wake of Edward Snyder‘s recent announcement of his plans to step down as dean of Chicago Booth School of Business next June, the debate over whether business schools want or should cater to “customers” was once again rekindled.

On his Chicago Tribune blog, Burns on Business, Greg Burns reminisced over Snyder’s pointed attack from three years ago, in which he expressed contempt for the practice of treating students as customers and called it a “corrupt and corrupting” practice that has undermined B-schools across the country.

“Somewhere during the last 28 years of above-inflation tuition increases,” Snyder wrote in the journal of an education trade group, some MBA programs traded high standards for an insidious “customer is always right” approach.

When students meet expectations, recognize them, he urged. And when they don’t, “kick them in the butt.”

But not everyone agrees with that approach, Burns points out. David Bejou, who heads the business school at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, says a top-down model makes little sense given today’s better-informed, Web-connected student body.

“You need to understand what this new generation wants,” he said. And it’s not “a faculty member with white hair and a tie standing at a blackboard trying to write a formula.”

Burns acknowledges that the backlash against the student-as-customer model is most fierce at top B-schools, even though such programs attract high-achieving students who are more likely to believe they are always right.

Meanwhile, dean Ray Whittington of DePaul University’s College of Commerce and Kellstadt Graduate School of Business in Chicago sees a difference between respecting the opinions of students and treating them as customers. There has to be a balance, he says, pointing out that areas such as length of a program, curriculum requirements or grading practices are beyond the purview of students.

The soon-to-be retiring dean of Chicago Booth has said that his school is “setting very high expectations of its students and alumni and then giving them enough support to achieve their goals. This is the opposite of a customer relationship, and I continue to counsel applicants and incoming students that they are not customers of Chicago Booth.”

How do you feel about the student-as-customer mindset? Are students products, shaped by their professors? Share your opinion in the comment section below.

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